Among the Pagan traditions that have become part of Christmas is burning the yule log. This custom springs from many different cultures, but in all of them, its significance seems to lie in the iul or "wheel" of the year. The Druids would bless a log and keep it burning for 12 days during the winter solstice; part of the log was kept for the following year when it would be used to light the new yule log. For the Vikings, the yule log was an integral part of their celebration of the solstice, the julfest; on the log, they would carve runes representing unwanted traits (such as ill fortune or poor honor) that they wanted the gods to take from them.
Wassail comes from the Old English words waes hael, which means "be well," "be hale," or "good health." A strong, hot drink (usually a mixture of ale, honey, and spices) would be put in a large bowl, and the host would lift it and greet his companions with "waes hael," to which they would reply "drinc hael," which meant "drink and be well." Over the centuries some non-alcoholic versions of wassail evolved.
Other customs developed as part of Christian belief. For example, Mince Pies (so called because they contained shredded or minced meat) were baked in oblong casings to represent Jesus' crib, and it was important to add three spices (cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg) for the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. The pies were not very large, and it was thought lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (ending with Epiphany, the 6th of January).
The ever-present threat of hunger was triumphantly overcome with a feast, and in addition to the significant fare mentioned above, all manner of food would be served at Christmas. The most popular main course was goose, but many other meats were also served. Turkey was first brought to Europe from the Americas around 1520 (its earliest known consumption in England is 1541), and because it was inexpensive and quick to fatten, it rose in popularity as a Christmas feast food.
Humble (or 'umble) pie was made from the "humbles" of a deer -- the heart, liver, brains and so forth. While the lords and ladies ate the choice cuts, the servants baked the humbles into a pie (which of course made them go further as a source of food). This appears to be the origin of the phrase, "to eat humble pie." By the seventeenth century, Humble Pie had become a trademark Christmas food, as evidenced when it was outlawed along with other Christmas traditions by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan government.
The Christmas pudding of Victorian and modern times evolved from the medieval dish of frumenty -- a spicy, wheat-based dessert. Many other desserts were made as welcome treats for children and adults alike.
Christmas Trees and Plants
The tree was an important symbol to every Pagan culture. The oak, in particular, was venerated by the Druids. Evergreens, which in ancient Rome were thought to have special powers and were used for decoration, symbolized the promised return of life in the spring and came to symbolize eternal life for Christians. The Vikings hung fir and ash trees with war trophies for good luck.
In the middle ages, the Church would decorate trees with apples on Christmas Eve, which they called "Adam and Eve Day." However, the trees remained outdoors. In sixteenth-century Germany, it was the custom for a fir tree decorated with paper flowers to be carried through the streets on Christmas Eve to the town square, where, after a great feast and celebration that included dancing around the tree, it would be ceremonially burned.
Holly, ivy, and mistletoe were all important plants to the Druids. It was believed that good spirits lived in the branches of holly. Christians believed that the berries had been white before they were turned red by Christ's blood when he was made to wear the crown of thorns. Ivy was associated with the Roman god Bacchus and was not allowed by the Church as decoration until later in the middle ages when a superstition that it could help recognize witches and protect against plague arose.
Christmas may owe its popularity in medieval times to liturgical dramas and mysteries presented in the church. The most popular subject for such dramas and tropes was the Holy Family, particularly the Nativity. As interest in the Nativity grew, so did Christmas as a holiday.
Carols, though very popular in the later middle ages, were at first frowned on by the Church. But, as with most popular entertainment, they eventually evolved to a suitable format, and the Church relented.
The Twelve Days of Christmas may have been a game set to music. One person would sing a stanza, and another would add his own lines to the song, repeating the first person's verse. Another version states it was a Catholic "catechism memory song" that helped oppressed Catholics in England during the Reformation remember facts about God and Jesus at a time when practicing their faith could get them killed. (If you would like to read more about this theory, please be warned that it contains graphic descriptions of the violent nature in which Catholics were executed by the Protestant government and has been refuted as an Urban Legend.)
Pantomimes and mumming were another form of popular Christmas entertainment, particularly in England. These casual plays without words usually involved dressing up as a member of the opposite gender and acting out comic stories.
Note: This feature originally appeared in December 1997, and was updated in December 2007 and again in December 2015.